A Certain Gorgeous Bleakness
By James Cassell on
Martin Wong on the Lower East Side
WHEN, IN AN INTERVIEW, curator and art chronicler Yasmin Ramirez asked American painter Martin Wong why he left his native San Francisco in 1978 and moved to New York, Wong said he went there “just to visit and then I ended up almost immediately living there.” Aligning himself with black and Latino graffiti artists and poets on the Lower East Side, including the legendary Puerto Rican writer and ex-con Miguel Piñero, his friend and sometime lover, Wong nevertheless described himself as a “tourist” there. If indeed he felt like an outsider—and Wong, Asian and gay, could certainly look like one, flamboyantly dressed, as he often was, from head to toe, like an urban cowboy—as an artist he penetrated deeply into the social terrain that he was observing.
It was in New York—city of darkness in contrast to San Francisco, city of the golden sun and the azure sky—that Wong found himself in the late 1970s, and it is where he created his most important works. It was as if New York’s underside seemed more real to Wong than the phantasmagoric, hallucinatory world of San Francisco in the Counterculture years, even though that city had emerged as the epicenter of (largely white) gay cultural life.
Wong died of AIDS-related causes in 1999, and the memory of his extraordinary output over a short span of about two decades in the ’80s and ’90s has begun to fade in recent years. This situation has been partly corrected by the comprehensive show mounted this past winter, Martin Wong: Human Instamatic, jointly organized by Ramirez and curator–poetry scholar Sergio Bessa (he also edited the superb catalog), at the Bronx Museum of the Arts. (The exhibit continues at the Wexner Center for the Arts in Columbus, Ohio, from May 14 through August 7, 2016; and moves to the U.C.-Berkeley Art Museum September 12 through December 10, 2017.)
Much of Wong’s most noteworthy art addresses, with anthropological acumen and a vivid fantasism, Latino and black life in the 1980s on the decaying Lower East Side—“the Loisaida”—as well as life behind bars, the inevitable adjunct for many of the people who lived there. Wong depicts the bleakness of pre-gentrified Loisaida, but he also locates aspects of its vibrancy and beauty, whether it’s a couple holding one another in the rubble of a vacant lot (Sharp & Dottie, 1984) or two firemen kissing in front of what looks like a deserted brick building in 1988’s Big Heat. (As a boy in San Francisco’s Chinatown, Wong was never as happy as when standing on a fire truck. Firemen appear often in his work, such as in his 1988 text painting, I Really Like the Way Firemen Smell, and My Fire Guy, also 1988, which shows a fully uniformed fireman in bed tenderly cradling a puppy.)
Wong’s life can be conveniently divided into two parts, his early life on the West Coast and his life in the East. He came from a middle-class Chinese-American family, a doted-upon only child growing up in relative comfort in the 1950s and ’60s. He enjoyed collecting, along with his mother, artsy tchotchkes and Asian artifacts, showed a talent for drawing the human figure (his early self-portraits in this exhibit demonstrate a stunning ability), and studied ceramics at Humboldt State University in Eureka. He returned to San Francisco from Eureka for a period in the early 70s and became an artist activist, providing materials for the gender-bending, communal-oriented Angels of Light, an offshoot of the Cockettes.
With his move to the East, an altogether new life began. Wong was in his early thirties when he traveled to New York, where he stumbled upon the run-down Meyer’s Hotel at South Street Seaport, which is where he would live and paint for three years, refining his representational painting techniques, largely unknown to the outside world. It is there that he painted My Secret World (1978-81, 1984), a work that would prove seminal to his vast output in the 1980s, illustrating as it does many of his artistic concerns. When Ramirez asked him in that same interview in 1996—the transcript of which is included in the catalogue—what would characterize “classic Martin Wong themes,” the artist answered: “Bricks and jails.”
With its pollution-dimmed brick façades and chiseled inscriptions, My Secret World offers a sort of voyeuristic view, through two large openings that aren’t quite windows, into the artist’s room at the Meyer’s Hotel. It is a small room with a tidily made bed and a simple dresser. Parts of several of the artist’s earlier paintings can be seen on the wall: one shows a large eight-ball, another a pair of dice. A third painting, from 1980, titled Psychiatrists Testify: Demon Dogs Drive Man to Murder (the last two words aren’t visible), refers to the New York serial killer Son of Sam. It consists of American Sign Language hand gestures that spell out the title. Books atop the dresser include Picturebook of Freaks, Famous Disasters, How to Make Money, Magic, Flying Saucers, Pirate Stories, and Unbeatable Bruce Lee.
In his catalog essay, poet and critic John Yau points out that “Wong’s images of bad luck and good luck are part of his worldview, along with his interest in different kinds of language, from the aural hallucinations of the insane to the hand signals of ASL.” The books that he puts on display attest to his male hero worship and interest in male adventure, a desire to make both art and money (a common conflict for many artists), his Asian identity, and his inward sense of alienation.
Wong’s aim as a painter was far more than just to act as a documentarian; otherwise, photography would have suited his purposes. His use of paint, particularly in his ubiquitous portrayal of brick walls and buildings—layering up earthy browns, burnt sienna, and ochers in a richly textured, sensuous way—is an æsthetic nod not only to his own experience making art from clay but also to the history of modernism, with its emphasis on paint as a tactile medium, the importance of color dynamics on the surface of the canvas, and the many uses of abstraction. Beyond that, one can see influences as disparate as R. Crumb, the countercultural cartoonist of “Mr. Natural” fame in the ’60s; Fernando Botero, the great Colombian painter of bulbous human figures; and Mondrian, with his commitment to geometric shape and balance (Wong owned a Mondrian drawing).
One recurrent element in numerous Wong paintings, the spelling out of titles through American Sign Language—which he began doing in 1980 with Psychiatrists Testify—can come off as slightly gimmicky, especially in paintings in which the ASL gestures are dominant. Fisted hands that resemble gnomic people, they can be a distraction, introducing the framework of a visual language that feels out of place. It’s as though Wong were trying too hard to be cryptic; or that somehow his realism isn’t enough in an art world that demands irony, sophistication, and double meanings. On the other hand, signs and symbols often do work for Wong, as in Tell My Troubles to the Eight Ball, that symbol of random answers, and in the exquisite Chinese Altar Screen, with its echoes of Duchamp, Rauschenberg, and Magritte.
A pivotal event in Wong’s life was meeting Piñero in 1981, at ABC No Rio, the alternative arts center on the Lower East Side, where Wong was exhibiting his work. In and out of prison for theft and drug possession, Piñero, who co-founded Nuyorican Poets Café, is best known for his play-turned-film Short Eyes, which describes the intricate power relationships and rituals of degradation in prison society. Piñero told Wong prison stories and revealed a world unknown to the artist. Wong tells Ramirez that “when Piñero was here I would just meet all of these beautiful gangsters. Yeah for awhile I lived with Piñero, and for awhile I lived with [graffiti artist] Lee Quinones and both times I guess it was like living with a Puerto Rican movie star or an ex-movie star.”
It is evident throughout his body of work that Wong was a painter with a keen understanding of art history, not just in the 20th century, but going back to the Renaissance and earlier. It’s interesting that Wong made his first sale of a major work in 1984 to that great temple of art antiquities, the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The painting was titled Attorney Street (Handball Court with Autobiographical Poem by Miguel Piñero). Wong also worked at the Met’s bookstore for a time in the late 1980s.
An icon of the Western canon, the Annunciation has been painted by El Greco, Caravaggio, Fra Angelico, and countless other artists. In Wong’s version, 1984’s The Annunciation According to Mikey Piñero (Cupcake and Paco), a man dressed in a white prison uniform kneels before a shirtless and muscular inmate. The painting has overtones of an attempted seduction, without any sense of coercion. Looking at the painting, one can imagine that the man who’s kneeling is trying to convince the other man, who seems ambivalent, to give it a try. One could imagine him saying something like, “I know you’re straight, but we’re in this place and somehow we have to survive.” The title’s reference to the Annunciation could be interpreted as purely ironic, but that would be too reductive. In a prison world where one may not always get to choose one’s sexual partner, same-sex love represents a more humane possibility, rare as it may be, to create a genuine human bond.
After he was diagnosed with AIDS, Wong left New York and returned to San Francisco to spend his last few years living with his parents. Growing in his mother’s small back yard, amid a handful of his early ceramic pieces, were succulents and cacti, exotic plants with origins in another part of the world that could nonetheless thrive in this alien coastal climate. Painted in stark black and white in 1997-98, Euphorbia Obesa and Mammillaria Wildii Crest, for example, contain orb-like forms, striated and furrowed, that call to mind close-ups of the brain. Considering the artist’s courage and brilliance, and the disease that was slowly killing him, it seems fitting that they are among Wong’s final paintings.
James Cassell, an artist and writer, lives in Silver Spring, MD. His last show was in 2014 at Studio 21 Gallery in Washington, DC.
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At the Heart of a Bay Area Revival
An Opening of the Field: Jess, Robert Duncan, and Their Circle
Curated by Michael Duncan and Christopher Wagstaff
At the Pasadena Museum of California Art to January 11, 2015
ART HISTORY can be a dry affair: a reinterpretation for the umpteenth time of the Mona Lisa’s smile. But sometimes it can bring to light an undervalued artist or an overlooked cultural moment. An example of the latter is an exhibition titled An Opening of the Field: Jess, Robert Duncan, and Their Circle, whose importance extends beyond the San Francisco Bay Area and American cultural history to encompass GLBT history as well. The show’s title refers to Robert Duncan’s 1960 volume of poetry, The Opening of the Field, whose cover sported an illustration by his partner Jess. The word “field,” argues co-curator Christopher Wagstaff, is “a metaphor for the cosmos or an expanding state of awareness.” After runs at New York University and American University in Washington, D.C., the show has now arrived in southern California.
Although a few of the mid-century Bay Area artists represented here are somewhat well-known, the majority are hardly household names. Among them are Helen Adam, George Herms, Edward Corbett, Eloise Mixon, Philip Roeber, Ronald Bladen, Harry Jacobus, and Virginia Admiral (known mainly as actor Robert DeNiro’s mother). The show illustrates and gives coherence to their common bonds, providing, perhaps for the first time, an understanding of their ideas and influences. But it primarily brings to the fore the two men at the center of this mid-20th-century cross-fertilization for whom life and art were inseparable.
Jess started life as Burgess Franklin Collins, a nerdy if handsome introvert, the product of a conservative family. A chemist, he fulfilled his service during World War II by helping to produce plutonium for the Manhattan project. “When they dropped the bomb I knew science was made by black magicians,” he later said. This theme, society’s idolization of scientific advances at the cost of spiritual awareness, persists throughout his work. In the late 1940s, Jess had a dream about the coming annihilation of the world. Shortly thereafter, he left science, severed ties with his family, moved to San Francisco, became simply “Jess,” and began to study art. A heavily wax-crayoned work on paper from 1959 shows his continued fascination with mass destruction. The darkened back of a man is seen against a vivid sky, his right arm pointing to a fiery mushroom-like column of light in the upper right. The sun is lower left and off-center. The thickly textured piece, echoing Van Gogh in its style and Albert Pinkham Ryder in its allegorical content, is titled Qui Auget Scientiam Auget Dolorem (“Who Increases Science Increases Grief”).
Robert Duncan, the more outgoing of the two, was the adopted child of Theosophists. His parents believed their gifted son had lived in Atlantis in a past life, and they encouraged his early interest in the arts, literature, and philosophy. While both were Californians—they met in San Francisco in the summer of 1950—Jess and Duncan’s backgrounds could not have been more dissimilar. And yet, despite Duncan’s absences due to teaching assignments and lecture circuit tours and Jess’s preference for staying at home and working, in their 37 years together (ending at Duncan’s death in 1988), they complemented and supported one another creatively. They were a model for many friends—straight, gay, and otherwise—of how to be in a committed relationship.
In the 1940s, before settling in San Francisco, Duncan had traveled abroad and spent a few years in New York. In a film shown in the exhibit, Duncan describes how he tried unsuccessfully to find employment there. Not wishing to hide his homosexuality, he was denied jobs because of it, or, on the other hand, was offered employment because of it. In the end, he preferred to wash dishes. While sexual freedom was certainly not a fact of everyday life in the Bay Area in the postwar years, the atmosphere in San Francisco, compared to the rest of America, was somewhat more conducive to “doing your own thing.”
At the entrance to the exhibit, a short documentary film takes the viewer inside the house that Jess and Duncan shared in San Francisco’s Mission District. It was a world unto itself, filled with books and art, including Jess’s paintings and collages (or “paste-ups” as he called them) and Duncan’s large, wax-crayon-on-paper drawings. Also on the walls were works by friends including: Wallace Berman, best known for his complex photo collages; Edward Corbett, a great and under-appreciated West Coast abstractionist; the eccentric poet and collagist Helen Adam; George Herms, who created startling mixed-media assemblages from found debris; and R. B. Kitaj, an anomalous figurative artist who drew on influences as disparate as Ezra Pound, James Joyce, and Jewish history and culture. Some of the works were gifts or were traded for another’s work. The commercial sale of art was not part of this crowd’s vocabulary.
In mid-century America, the focus was largely on East Coast artists, notably the abstract expressionists such as Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, and Mark Rothko. Although touted as the first flowering of an authentically American art movement, abstract expressionism had multiple roots in Europe. Inherent in it was a rather doctrinaire view of art history. It sought to cleanse the canvas of all narrative information, such as any figurative components. The painting was to be distilled down to its purest elements of color and line. In contrast, artists on the West Coast were less confined by orthodoxies. To be sure, the West had its share of great abstract expressionists—Clyfford Still, another of Jess’s teachers at CSFA, being the best known. But Still was tolerant of artists who deviated from pure abstraction in their work, as did the circle around Jess and Duncan, who borrowed from a diversity of sources.
While two-dimensional works comprise most of An Opening of the Field, the show also includes stone sculptures, assemblages, Duncan’s handmade books of poems, and a 37-minute film by filmmaker–poet James Broughton. “The Pleasure Garden,” both satire and allegory aimed at societal repression, perfectly sets the stage for the exhibit. Made in 1953 and shot in London’s Crystal Palace Gardens, Broughton’s Chaplinesque short film follows several eccentrics as they cavort in an Edenic setting in which their nemeses, Col. Pall K. Gargoyle and Aunt Minerva, attempt to rein in any kind of physical or emotional expression. In the end, the two moralizers are expelled from the garden and the inhabitants can again pursue their desires.
The art of Jess, Robert Duncan, and many of those affiliated with them was infused with Romanticism and myth. Writes Christopher Wagstaff: “myth for these two artists involves the disclosure in time of what is primordial and time-free.” Dreams, too—as well as a belief in the transformative importance of the imagination and the idea that art can involve joyful play—characterize their works. For them, art and life were interchangeable: a canvas, a drawing, a poem was not so much a thing confined by its finishedness as something alive and ongoing. In a statement regarding his æsthetics, Duncan asks, “Why should one’s art then be an achievement? Why not more an adventure?”
Of the two, I think Jess was the stronger and more original painter. But then, Duncan was first and foremost a poet. (A complete collection of his poems is to be published soon.) Duncan’s writings, with their allusions to dreams, mythologies and fairy tales, clearly informed much of Jess’s work. The two often collaborated, with Jess providing the visual elements for Duncan’s poetry, such as Jess’s ink-on-paper illustration for his 1955 poem “The Song of the Borderguard.” With its spare lines and monochromatic blacks and whites perfectly balancing one another, it recalls the work of the late-19th-century artist Aubrey Beardsley and art nouveau.
Jess’s relationship with Duncan also contributed to Jess’s use of sexual imagery. His A Thin Veneer of Civility (Self-Portrait), an oil wash on canvas from 1954, is in its soft beauty among the show’s most striking and powerful works. From a distance, the nude, boney male figure in the long vertical canvas—its predominant colors muted browns, yellow, and a warm red—appears to be leaning back and… what? Urinating? Masturbating? On closer viewing, we see that he is actually using a ball of string to play with a cat that’s turned over on its back at his feet. Above in the upper right is a faint image of his lover Duncan’s head. “Tender, tongue-in-cheek, and pointedly sexual, the painting blithely breaks nearly every taboo of its time,” remarks Michael Duncan in the superb exhibit book.
Jess said that a dream is the perfect collage, the elements artlessly and seamlessly fitting together, conveying the dream’s own logic. His “paste-ups” present what is undoubtedly a dreamlike world. Filtered through a Freudian prism on the interior psyche, collage has its roots in Cubism, evolving and flourishing under Dada and Surrealism, as seen in works by earlier 20th-century artists such as Kurt Schwitters and Max Ernst (to whom Jess acknowledged a debt). It is arguably the most narrative of all modern art forms. Like a novelist, the collagist has a story to tell. But the process, rather than being preconceived, is somewhat serendipitous. The collage elements—magazine cut-outs, pieces of fabric, found objects—are often haphazardly assembled, products of the mind’s conscious and unconscious riffing off visual juxtapositions and puns.
Through collage, Jess, as a gay man and a misfit in 1950s America, was able to express his alienation, anger, anxieties, and homosexual longings. He used contemporary advertising materials and text—for example, ads for shaving cream and sportswear. He found, and sometimes made explicit, the underlying homoerotic elements of this imagery. In some collages, handsome, muscular and unclothed men appear in sexual positions. He used satire and humor fearlessly, poking fun at himself and his own urges. Defying convention, he could bend hetero-oriented material into homoerotic juxtapositions, exacting a kind of revenge upon the dominant culture that had rendered invisible his preferred mode of erotic expression.
James Cassell, an artist and writer, lives in Silver Spring, MD. His work was recently seen at the Studio 21 Gallery in Washington, DC.
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